Temple Oheb Shalom welcomed Rabbi Sarah R. Marion as its newest spiritual leader in June, a historic appointment, as Marion is the first female clergy member to join the congregation since its founding 163 years ago.
From Westchester, N.Y., Marion, 30, grew up in a family that was not particularly religious. She did not become involved with the Jewish community until she was 7 years old, and even then, Judaism did not become a significant part of her life until she was 13 and studying for her bat mitzvah.
“While I was studying, a family member told me that I would be the first member of my family to become a bat mitzvah,” she said. “That role really hit me. All 13-year-olds are looking for a sense of purpose, for something that makes them special, and I decided that maybe this was what would set me apart, and that stuck with me.”
The idea of applying to rabbinical school came to Marion when she was finishing high school. After becoming more involved with her temple following her bat mitzvah, she enrolled in a program at Hebrew Union College in which high school seniors received training and instruction from current rabbinical students.
“For the first time, I was interacting with rabbinical students who were just a few years older than me, who were young and hip and cool. I saw myself there in a few years,” said Marion.
She attended Brandeis University, earning degrees in gender studies and Near-Eastern and Judaic studies. After working for a time at Temple Beth Elohim in Massachusetts, Marion attended rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College, from which she graduated this past May.
“It was never a question in my mind whether a woman could be a rabbi because I had grown up with a very strong female rabbi at my temple,” Marion explained, when asked about being the first female clergy at Temple Oheb Shalom. “The thought of a male rabbi was actually a bit more foreign to me than that of a female rabbi growing up.”
At Temple Oheb Shalom, Marion will be in the role of assistant spiritual leader and will serve as the temple’s director of youth engagement.
“She is a wonderful addition to our team,” said Kenneth Davidson, executive director of the synagogue. “The congregation loves her after such a short time. She fits in so naturally that it feels like she’s been here for ages; she has really made it her own.”
Marion is already digging into her job with enthusiasm. “The past few months, I have had a lot of coffees,” she said with a laugh. “The rabbinate is really changing and becoming a lot more relational and about getting to know more people one on one. I really see myself as a community builder and connector in addition to being that teacher on high on the pulpit. I really see the role of the rabbi to be stepping down off the pulpit and coming into the community and being at Starbucks talking to people in the community just as much as I am here planning sermons.”
She also has a clear view of what direction she wants the temple’s youth programming to move. Under her watch, the youth group revived a program “very near and dear” to her heart called Rosh Chodesh, which is a program “dedicated to building teen resilience through gender specific programming,” she explained.
She also recently brought to the temple a parallel boys program called Shevet Achim. She believes that these programs are invaluable in an age when teens need support in their lives more than ever.
“Kids and teens and youth these days are so over programmed and overscheduled,” she said. “So much is going on in their lives, and many are often really struggling with identity issues and finding their place in the world, just like I was when I was 13. There is no place better than a synagogue community to help teens and youth figure out who they are and who they want to be and just feel loved.”
Marion asserted that the world right now is so complicated that people are searching for answers more than ever. “The Jewish community is here to support those people in a way that no other organization can,” she said.
Another of her ideas is to bring a challah bake to Oheb Shalom in January. “We are trying to go off the success of the Shabbat Project and the Great Challah Bake and are looking to bring our own. We want to make it a giant, multigenerational program for men and women alike,” she said.
“I really want to find ways to build bridges outside of this community,” she added. “I want to propel and inspire our community members to go out and bridge the divides in our community and to make a difference. The reality is that I am the rabbi for all of these people, so I want to be as involved as I can with each and every one of them.”